A billionaire Jewish family has refused to appoint women to its property firm's board as part of a national diversity drive, saying it conflicts with its Charedi values.
The Freshwater family's Daejan Holdings, which holds a transatlantic property empire worth more than £2 billion, has been accused of failing to keep up with “expectations around equality for men and women” by Denise Wilson, the chief executive of the Hampton-Alexander Review that seeks to boost female representation in business leadership.
Mark Jenner, Daejan’s company secretary, told the JC that the Freshwaters' strictly Orthodox “background and beliefs” make a mixed-gender board “very uncomfortable”.
He said: “They’ve never used a religious argument at all. They prefer to keep that as their private business. But because I was directly asked, I have to say it is probably a factor.
“Mr [Benzion] Freshwater won’t be pushed around by anybody on any subject. Once you start doing that it’s open season. He feels strongly about the matter. Not just from a religious background, but it must be a factor.”
The Freshwater property empire was established in Britain by Osias Freshwater, who fled Poland on a business visa in 1939 “on the last ship to leave the port before the outbreak of the Second World War”, according to Daejan.
It grew to become the largest private landlord in Britain in the 1960s, holding a number of landmark buildings as well as thousands of residential homes.
Company chairman Benzion Freshwater and chief executive Solomon Freshwater, who are both sons of Osias, currently sit on the board.
There are three people on Daejan’s board who are not Freshwater family members, all of whom are men. The Freshwaters control 79.5 per cent of Daejan stock.
In 2011, of the top 350 FTSE-listed company, the boards of 152 of them had no women.
Now only Daejan and one other firm – TR Property Investment Trust – still have all-male boards.
TR Property had a female director until February, and is believed to have several women in the final stages of an ongoing recruitment process.
Ms Wilson told the JC that, despite the Hampton-Alexander review, the UK is an “outlier” in that there is no legislation on gender diversity for the boards of listed companies.
Unlike “most European countries”, there are no financial sanctions or other measures to force firms to comply with the review’s stated aim of 33 per cent female representation on listed boards and leadership teams, she added.
Companies on the FTSE index enjoy a number of advantages, including increased access to capital and an increased public profile.
Ms Wilson said: “There are a series of obligations that come with being a FTSE-listed company, and one of those is that you make all roles – including those on the board open equally to men and women.
“It’s not about being unsympathetic [to religious beliefs] – it’s simply a slight conflict of interest here, and no one can have cake and eat it.
“We educate and train women - in equal numbers to men - to be accountants, lawyers, doctors and under the Equalities Act in the UK all job opportunities are equally available to men and women.
“It’s in part about fairness, but it’s very well recognised now in business that there are huge benefits to be had – financial, operational and in safety – from having gender-diverse teams.”
Mr Jenner said there are “no current plans” for Daejan to cease being a publicly traded company.